It was under a towering fig tree in Poet’s Park—which Phil Cott helped create at Webster Elementary School—that the Malibu community gathered Saturday to remember a towering and beloved local figure in education.
The celebration of life for retired Webster principal Phil Cott drew hundreds, not only from Malibu, but across the west side, where Cott left his indelible imprint on the education of thousands of children. The beloved educator was remembered for his wit, charm, compassion and energy that helped enrich the lives of his many students and their families for more than four decades.
The celebration of life and remembrance started in the Webster auditorium, in a school where Cott was principal from 1990 to 2013. He expertly tossed lunch cards daily to his students, knew each child’s name, presided over Websterville (his colonial town recreation) and hosted scores of talent shows, science nightsand ballroom dancing lessons for his pupils.
Friends, colleagues and former students watched a video compilation of Cott’s life from early childhood to footage of the many years he and friend Al Friedenberg coached Mar Vista Little League. The video not only brought back fond memories, but also reminded all how Cott enjoyed wearing outlandish costumes that would delight students, parents and teachers every Halloween.
The colorful ties Cott wore for 23 years at Webster were also for sale at the campus event. The proceeds will benefit Phil Cott’s Dream Fund to support scholarships to Yosemite, Astro Camp and Gardening Angels—programs he helmed during his tenure at the school.
Cott’s younger brother, Howard, revealed that his older sibling was a rebel since childhood when he recalled the story of a teenaged Cott defiant against his parents. As a young teacher, he often questioned the bureaucracy of the educational system and quickly became the leader of his teachers’ union. Cott actually became a teacher before he was 21, requiring his father to sign his contract. His mother packed his lunches in his early teaching career in Culver City where, former students have posted on social media, getting into Cott’s class was like “winning the lottery.”
The same was said of the little leaguers he coached for more than 14 years, including brother Howard, who described, “He was your mentor, your friend, your role model. For a bunch of young teenagers, he was our guy.” He read a comment from a former player of 40 years ago: “Phil was an incredibly passionate man who not only knew how to coach baseball, but knew how to teach kids. Phil made an everlasting impression on me that I never forgot and never will.”
Board of education member Craig Foster likened Cott to a “Hall of Fame” principal. He termed him a “Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and Babe Ruth Hall of Famer—a great among the greats.” Foster called Cott’s loss profound.
“The gift that was his life is beyond precious,” Foster said. The BOE member noted Cott’s compassion and devotion to his students, staff and parents.
Former Point Dume Marine Science School principal Chi Kim recalled Cott was always proud when giving tours of Webster. She also noted that her former colleague always ribbed her at Malibu High School graduations when he would point out there were more Webster kids than former PDMSS students on the MHS honor roll.
One of the most touching tributes came from former student Werkneh Ourga. Ourga was barely 10 when he came to Malibu 12 years ago from an orphanage in Ethiopia. The youngster was a surgical patient being treated through local charity Mending Kids. While staying with a local family with a child at Webster, Ourga, too, wanted an education.
“One day, I showed up,” Ourga said. His teacher welcomed him with “open arms.” But, he added, “My presence wasn’t without controversy. Keeping with the rules of Santa Monica-Malibu district—that’s where Mr. Cott stepped in.” Apparently, Cott finagled a way for Ourga to stay at Webster. Ourga claimed he would have been “staying home all day watching TV” if not for Cott’s intervention. “He was immensely kind to me and showed me a path to succeed in life. He told me, ‘You’re going to make a big difference in the world.’” Ourga is now a college student at Azusa Pacific University.
With apologies to the other principals in attendance, Cott’s daughter, Rachel, described her father as the best principal ever and said as an example as a husband and father.
“He raised the bar impossibly high,” she said, adding, “Any kid was safe in his school. Everyone was equal and special.”
Said former student Tiare O’Herlihy: “He gave us the greatest memories of our childhood.”